How the mouths of Chelsea fans would have been watering at 3.30pm on Saturday.
Chelsea’s front four had the freedom of Stamford Bridge, interchanging at will and causing Southampton all manner of problems from which they had no right to recover.
Mason Mount, Kai Havertz and Christian Pulisic looked free, with no set position, while Timo Werner created two fine goals for himself. Any potential talk of a Premier League goal drought was put to bed.
But again, Chelsea’s defence let them down. From 2-0 up they were pegged back 2-2, the first goal from Danny Ings coming from thin air following a Havertz mistake, and the second a joint Kurt Zouma-Kepa Arrizabalaga error. They then squandered a 3-2 lead late on from the second phase of a set piece.
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For all their attacking potential – and that’s even before Hakim Ziyech sees more than 20 minutes – Frank Lampard’s side are continuously shooting themselves in the foot.
Errors have punctuated their season, and questions over defensive solidity have hung over Lampard since he took the job last August.
Chelsea have conceded an average of 1.5 goals per game in the Premier League under Lampard (63 in 43 games), the Blues’ worst rate under any boss to oversee more than one game in the competition.
Chelsea’s defensive discrepancy (Premier League only)
Since Lampard arrived, only Saints, Aston Villa, West Ham and Brighton have conceded more goals of current Premier League teams. But the goals against column does not tally with other metrics.
They have conceded just 379 shots – only Manchester City have faced fewer – and their expected goals against is just 44.7, over 18 goals fewer than they have actually conceded. That is by far the largest difference between expected goals conceded and actual goals conceded in the Premier League.
This points to individual mistakes. Seven of the nine goals Chelsea have conceded this season have been down to individual mistakes in some form: Sadio Mane’s first in Liverpool’s 2-0 win on September 20 and Jannik Vestegaard’s late equaliser on Saturday the only two that have not.
Lampard is fully aware, and wants game management, something that seems to have been abandoned across the Premier League this season.
“They are mistakes that concern you. [The second goal] was a situation that we should have clearly dealt with in a much better and simpler terms. If you are going to concede those kind of goals, then it doesn’t matter how well you play in periods of games, it is something that we can’t have in our game.
“There is certainly a game management element of it in a game. We want to have a lead and see it off.”
Could it also a structural issue? Chelsea have switched to a 4-2-3-1 this season – unavoidable with their attacking options – but it often becomes a front five with Ben Chilwell comfortable and effective up the pitch.
But for all his attacking qualities, Chilwell’s high position stretches Chelsea’s defence on the turnover. Southampton targeted their full-backs with the press from the first minute on Saturday – in the first half it failed miserably, in the second half it worked wonderfully.
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Either way, and as with Saints’ own approach, it’s risk and reward. At present, as can be seen across the Premier League, games are resembling a coin toss; teams are getting it wrong just as much as they are getting it right.
Building shape and solidity takes time, and that may be lacking on the training ground at present.
“I don’t think we are conceding goals due to the shape of the team,” Lampard insisted after Saturday’s game. “Of course we have changed the shape and I have to make those decisions with the personnel we have and getting the best out of them. That is something I have to think about, but it doesn’t mean I am dead set on sticking with that formation and there can be changes and tweaks to it as we go along. It’s something we need to continue working on. It is a change.
“Change needs work on the training ground, we haven’t had much of that so sometimes the work in progress is in games and today there were loads of great things from the 4-2-3-1, particularly in the first half. In the second half I wouldn’t blame the shape of the team, more that we didn’t deal with the fact that Southampton were really keen to put us under pressure in their own half.
“We wanted to miss out their press, we didn’t do enough and that meant we turned the ball over in our own half, which irrespective of shape is always a problem.”
In this, the most bizarre of Premier League season, it feels like the first big team to play it safe, cynical and eradicate mistakes will set the pace at the top.
Last season, Lampard was guilty of playing free-flowing football in games that begged for patience and attrition, surprising given his three-and-a-half successful years under the professor of game management Jose Mourinho.
He has match winners in abundance, so it’s time his Chelsea side cut out the blunders and shut up shop.
Chelsea host Sevilla in their opening Champions League group game on Tuesday at 8pm, before going to Manchester United on Saturday, live on Sky Sports Premier League at 5.30pm.
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